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Duluth prepares to expand skywalk

A key new link now under consideration could unify and expand Duluth's skywalk system.

A resolution headed to the Duluth Economic Development Authority Wednesday would authorize the conceptual design of a new segment of skywalk stretching eastward from the Technology Village building, through the 100 block of East Superior Street — including Fond Du-Luth Casino — and then across Second Avenue East to the Temple Opera building and the adjoining NorShor Theatre.

Heather Rand, DEDA's executive director, said Mayor Emily Larson's administration and the authority both view the proposed new section of skywalk as a high-priority connection that could link the city's medical district to the rest of the downtown skywalk network

Kristi Stokes, president of Duluth's Greater Downtown Council, shared in Rand's anticipation, saying: "I think this would be very significant for our downtown. It really would bring in that final connection."

Stokes said Duluth already has seen increased investment in its Historic Arts and Theater District, and predicted improved skywalk access along with the February opening of the newly restored NorShor Theatre will only lead to more.

DEDA is expected to approve an agreement Wednesday night that would pay LHB up to $35,500 to consult with affected property owners, draw up some different options and estimate what the proposed skywalk project would cost. The study is expected to address the needed structural supports, clearance for vehicular traffic and how best to align the walkway from floor to floor in different buildings.

Rand said the owners of the buildings that are home to Fannie Rose Candies, the Tech Village and the casino will all be involved in discussions about the proposed skywalk's route, its hours, maintenance and security. DEDA currently owns the Temple Opera building but recently put the building on the market, so there could be another building owner added to the mix, as well.

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, which owns and operates the casino, already has contracted with LHB to look at some skywalk options — an encouraging sign of mutual interest, Rand said.

"I was really pleased that they were willing to spend that money and give that careful thought and consideration," she said.

The skywalk could pass over the Fannie Rose building.

"There will more than likely be a bridge over the top of that building, because that's just a two-story, and it would connect with the third floor of the casino," Rand explained.

If all goes smoothly, LHB predicts a design could be developed and finalized, with the project ready to go out for construction bids by the second quarter of 2018.

Rand said the new section of skywalk would connect users with three different city-owned parking ramps, encouraging people to make better use of off-street parking options.

"For us, it's really important that we maximize that as a public infrastructure asset," she said.

Stokes said that improved access to parking should be a plus for downtown visitors and also could help employers recruit and retain workers.

She noted that skywalk access also could help downtown businesses weather the challenges they will face when the reconstruction of Superior Street begins next year.

Support for the project appears to be building, Rand observed.

"I think the Larson administration understands the importance of this, as do our DEDA commissioners.We've been talking about this for a while. We definitely would like to move this up with respect to priorities and try to accomplish something as soon as possible. It's in everyone's best interests," she said.

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